She looked up at me, tears streaming down both sides of her face. All I could see were her beautifully lilac-tinted eyes full of water. It must be the way her tears had accentuated the blueness that she’d been born with, I thought sensibly I don’t remember them being quite that distinctive a shade. I’m just buying time. I’m being observant while I think of how to respond to my overwhelmed woman-girl. Her long wavy hair – both tousled and matted down in places where tears had checked in and settled. Remaining parts of her mane had flown wildly over her mascara-stained pillow, free from rubber bands or that pink headband she wore almost daily to restrain it. One of those black and white Calvin Klein commercials they used to run where waif looking young females looked wantonly at some sculpted young beefcake wearing only CK briefs drifted through my mind. I always found them sickening. More so at the moment.
Turning her body away from me, she eased into the fetal position she’d begun lying in prior to my interruption.
“Why don’t you ever knock?” she said between sobs, which I interpreted to mean please go but don’t leave me.
My daughter’s voice sounded flat. It lacked the passionate “Go to hell” angst I was so accustomed to when her older sisters were her age and I would storm into their rooms using my “parental pass”. This daughter, my third, had spent a good part of the day avoiding parental contact. Unless she was pushing me away with her angry, defiant words, she was AWOL. When together, she was expertly pushing buttons, which I played into it brilliantly. By merely suggesting that she make her way up to her room when/if she felt the need to spew hateful commentary at the rest of us, I was giving her the ammunition she needed to claim how little we understood her.
That’s what she’d wanted after all, further proof that she was a little shit and therefore deserved to be sent away from we, the happy zombie-like family glued to the notion of non-communication = harmony while watching some show I don’t even remember watching on television. I mean, after all, it is she who has been teased all her life about having the golden hair when all her siblings have dark brown; it is she who has the beautifully pale china doll-like skin while all of her siblings are dark, almost olive looking; it is she who has the light starry eyes while her siblings have dark chocolaty brown shades. What more proof does one need to feel outside the “popular” group?
Her current distress was a bit different than her usual anger consisting of yelling and verbal assaulting behaviors. She seemed more vulnerable and delicate somehow. The usual teenage omnipotence, the moodiness that came from the utter injustices of the little bubble she lived and breathed, was missing. I could tell by the apathetic tone she was taking around all of our most recent interactions lately that something was eating my baby girl up inside. And now it was as if I was feeding her more of the sadness and despair that she’d already been thinking to herself. This wasn’t a power struggle. She came in defeated. she just wanted confirmation from a source that she peered through daily that it was so. I am that mirror into her soul. That is my responsibility for better or for worse. I know that, but never quite so clearly have I seen it. Maybe I just haven’t wanted to.
My stomach began to feel tight. I went to wipe a tear away from her thin puffy face and observed her flinch as if I might be going forward to strike her across the face. The furthest thing from my mind. oh my God, has someone physically hurt you? I wanted to ask. But I didn’t. The way it might come out would startle her. She would enact another layer of defense and retreat. Not yet, too soon. I need to just breath in her rhythm. I just need to be still. Without words I eased my hand to her back and began slowly, softly stroking the length of her curled up spine. She sobbed quietly. I sat watching her stuttered breaths.
After weighing out my words carefully, I tenderly said, “You look like someone who might be feeling alone. I know it might feel that way to you and that’s totally ok; but I am here and I love you. I am here. You are my love. I adore you.”
“Why…Mom…? I don’t know why…”
“Why what, Angel?”
“Why am I so different? I don’t even know why I’m crying…nothing has happened. I’m just (sniff) so (sniff) sad. And I’m tired. I’m so (sniff) tired…and I don’t even care what my friends are doing…and…” Sobs take over again. My girl is so conflicted at this moment. I want to scoop her up (as if I could) and hold her and make her know how special and unique she really is.
I totally get it. She is a little bit different. It’s not necessarily a good thing at this point in her life. I believed that this day would come for her, unfortunately. With the years she has grown more and more aware of her gift of compassion as well as her curse of caring to a point where her body aches and she can’t figure out why she feels so overwhelmed. I know why. It’s because she has just spent several hours with people who suck the literal joy out of her. This girl is a giver. She lends her strength, her humor, ideas and thoughts, her time and energy to be one hundred percent “with” others who may or may not be in need. She does this involuntarily for the most part, not understanding the toll it will take later on what will be her empty emotional bank account.
When she acts “phony” (her words) to join with other girls her age who might be talking about someone behind their back, she feels physically ill. On those days she comes home from school anxiety-ridden. She analyzes everything she may have said or done in the hopes that she didn’t come across as mean to anyone. Over tea or hot chocolate she relates to me what its like for her when she is playing the game of being “popular” and trying to fit in. She is feeling great sadness for the person who isn’t invited to. She punishes herself for being callous and judgmental or most likely, thinking about being that way, as the cost is too much for her sensitive side to bear.
Aren’t all teenage girls callous and judgmental by nature? I ask her.
“No Mom. Only the ones most other girls are afraid of. The mean girls.”
Why are people even caring about the “mean girls”? They’re mean, for Pete’s sake!
“Because they have all the parties and the boys like them and stuff.” What’s “and stuff”? I would love to ask and don’t. For now.
If my “nice girl” is empathy-ridden, then another’s “mean girl” is uncaring and callous? How does this happen?
More than just “an old soul”, I believe my girl is an “empath”. She feels so deeply that she gets overwhelmed by people and their varied energies. She sucks others energy in like a sponge and then falls apart depleted, needing to be refueled by her own space, time and distance.
“Empaths are highly sensitive, finely tuned instruments when it comes to emotions. They feel everything, sometimes to an extreme and are less apt to intellectualize feelings. Intuition is the filter through which they experience the world. Empaths are naturally giving, spiritually attuned, and good listeners. If you want heart, empaths have got it. Through thick and thin, they’re there for you, world class nurturers…”
“The trademark of empaths is that they know where you’re coming from. Some can do this without taking on other peoples’ feelings, however, for better or for worse, others can become angst sucking sponges. This often overrides the sublime capacity to absorb positive emotions and all that is beautiful…When empaths absorb the impact of stressful emotions it can trigger panic attacks, depression, food, sex and drug binges, and a plethora of physical symptoms that defy traditional medical diagnosis from fatigue to agoraphobia.”
Adapted from Dr. Judith Orloff’s New York Times Bestseller, “Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself From Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life” (Three rivers Press, 2011)
This child of mine is all spirit and positivity and light. My husband used to look at her utter joy and creativity and tell me he imagined I might have been very similar if I hadn’t grown up so afraid in a home that wasn’t safe or predictable or sane. I have to agree. We are very similar in many ways. Not all of them so positive.
People are drawn like a magnet to her playfulness and love. Until she’s not. At which point she is sadness and frustration and anger. A twister in varied colors of dark. I’m not sure how much of that she is able to hide from peers, though I don’t see it when she’s around others. What all this says to me is that my loving daughter is very possibly prone to depression at some point. I dare not diagnose her at this point, it is just something to be aware of. God knows she carries it within her ghastly genetic pool. There is absolutely nothing we don’t talk about in this house, so she is aware of the potential as well as the support that we all garner from one another around anything anyone feels might be an issue.
I stop rubbing my child’s back. I ask her if she’d prefer if I stay or go. I tell her that it is ok to feel crappy. I totally get the cloud cover she’s under. I’ve been under that cloud cover myself, I say. I empathize with how hard it can be to be “on” all the time. When we’re not goofy and joy-filled and funny, people wonder what is wrong with us. It’s almost like they get angry when we aren’t charming. Sometimes we are just refueling or need some alone time or don’t damn well feel like being the entertainment. I give her permission to “just be“. No one ever taught that to me. That I was perfectly ok even when I wasn’t the funny girl or the talkative girl or the pretty girl or the smart girl.
Some days it’s good enough to just be the breathing girl.
I tell her how special her gift is, and yet how much more she will be called upon to share her love of life, while balancing the dark parts. it’s a responsibility that she has to herself and to others. What she has to share is goodness and she doesn’t ever have to compromise that. What she does have to do is to take care of herself always. I tell her that eventually she will be aware of her limits and that she may need to step away from certain people that she cannot help. That she cannot allow this sensitivity to destroy her either.
Don’t hide from the intensity of them, I say, it is a part of you, learn from these feelings. Express these feelings.
Then I remember something I’d done for her just a few days prior to this day. How did I know the time was upon us? I say wait. Before I forget I have something for you. I run to my room and return with two small hardbound books. One, a brown leather journal all battered and beaten by years of page flipping and flooded out basements; and another, red and brand new. Here, I say as I hoist the books into her hands. The brown one was my journal at your age. Be gentle with it, it has kept lots of secrets and has been through many moods and deep thoughts, like the ones you carry. I thought you might want to know what a deep thinker and a deep feeler looks like on paper. The other is blank. It is for your own deep thoughts.
You got something special, kid. Embrace it. I say.
She sat up and embraced me. My light green eyes met her light blue ones. We were together in this; all of it.
Please world, be gentle.